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There are essentially three types of pearls: natural, cultured and imitation. A natural pearl (often called an Oriental pearl) forms when an irritant, such as a piece of sand, works its way into a particular species of oyster, mussel, or clam. As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes a fluid to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited on the irritant until a lustrous pearl is formed.
A cultured pearl undergoes the same process. The only difference is that the irritant is a surgically implanted bead or piece of shell called Mother of Pearl. Often, these shells are ground oyster shells that are worth significant amounts of money in their own right as irritant-catalysts for quality pearls. The resulting core is, therefore, much larger than in a natural pearl. Yet, as long as there are enough layers of nacre (the secreted fluid covering the irritant) to result in a beautiful, gem-quality pearl, the size of the nucleus is of no consequence to beauty or durability.
Pearls can come from either salt or freshwater sources. Typically, saltwater pearls tend to be higher quality, although there are several types of freshwater pearls that are considered high in quality as well. Freshwater pearls tend to be very irregular in shape, with a puffed rice appearance the most prevalent. Nevertheless, it is each individual pearls merits that determines value more than the source of the pearl.
Pearls have a rich inner glow that seems to come from deep within. That’s luster. It’s an effect caused by light reflecting and diffusing through the layers of nacre. High luster tends to make a pearl more valuable. As a test, stand with a beam of bright light behind you, hold a large, fine-quality cultured pearl close to your face. You’ll see the light reflected and yourself.
The play of light refracted through many layers of concentric nacre creates the orient – the iridescence of a pearl that sometimes creates a rainbow effect. The Latin word oriens means “the rising of the sun”.
A pearl and the inside surface of the shell of its parent oyster or mussel are made of nacre. Layer by layer, this crystalline substance builds up around a small bead or piece of shell (the nucleus) implanted in the culturing process. The thicker the nacre, the more lustrous and durable the pearl is.
Through a microscope, the surface nacre of a cultured pearl looks like a lunar landscape – irregular “fingerprints” that are unique.
To check if a new pearl is “real”, rub it gently against your front teeth. If it feels bumpy or gritty, it’s probably a genuine cultured pearl. A simulated or imitation pearl will glide over the teeth and feel like plastic.
Most pearls are measured by their diameter, irregularly shaped pearls by their width and sometimes length. The standard of measurement is the millimeter (mm). From less than 1mm (seed pearls) to over 20mm (South Seas & sometimes Tahitians), the size of a cultured pearl depends mainly on the size of the parent oyster or mussel, the size of the implant nucleus, and how long it is cultivated. All factors being equal, the larger the pearl, the greater the value. For instance, a Mabe cultured pearl has a wide diameter but is a “half-pearl” with a flat bottom. Its value is much less than a large, round South Sea cultured pearl of similar quality.
Some average sizes:
(One millimeter = 1/25 inch)
Cultured pearls come in an almost infinite variety of shapes, partly determined by the shape of the nucleus around which the pearl is formed. Round pearls are the traditional favorites. A pearl with an irregular shape is called Baroque. The popular pear and teardrop pearls are Semi-Baroque - irregular but symmetrical. No matter what the shape, it falls into one of five main categories.
To test the roundness of a pearl, place it on a smooth, sloped surface. The rounder the pearl, the straighter and more easily it rolls.
From opaline white to anthracite black, the palest pastels to vibrant hues, pearls come in almost every color and shade. The finest have a subtle interplay of colors - the primary body color plus delicate overtones. One of the rarest colors today is the rich warm gold of South Sea pearls from the Philippines.
What’s called "cleanliness" affects the value of a pearl. Generally, the fewer blemishes the better. Tiny irregularities are acceptable and can be a test of authenticity.